At once horrific and serene and horrific because of its serenity, the scene unfolds elegantly: a beautiful young Muslim woman, coifed and dressed in Western ensemble, enters a bustling, upscale cafe in Algiers. She walks timidly through the throng and shyly takes a seat offered her by an older French gentlemen. She orders a Pepsi from the bartender. She demurely sips her drink. Then she extends her leg and with her foot she gently pushes her large handbag, which is loaded with a timed explosive, underneath her barstool, safely out of sight. As she sits at this chic bar for a few more moments before leaving, her dark eyes are hypnotically expressive: she nervously surveys the happy faces of the café’s patrons: living people whom she’s about to blow to kingdom come.
So it goes in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic of cinema vérité, The Battle of Algiers, a streetwise, meticulous, high-speed re-creation of the brutal urban phase of the French-Algerian war, covering the period from roughly 1954 through 1957.
Shot in and around the Algerian Casbah over the course of two years and using a cast of non-professional Algerians as well as some of the infamous leaders of the real-life insurgency, Pontecorvo’s film went on to win the Golden Lion award at the 1966 Venice Film Festival before it was banned for many years in France.
It has now been re-released in a lavish 3-disk box-set by The Criterion Collection, complete with over four hours of added features and a detailed 55-page booklet, all of which caps a restoration project that was undertaken by the Italian Culture Ministry starting in 1999. A must-see for aspiring auteurs over many generations, the film was also required viewing for nascent terrorist groups the world over, as well as for paramilitary specialists and counter-terrorist operatives: the U.S. Defense Department screened the film at the outset of the Iraq invasion.
The Battle of Algiers is unapologetically anti-colonial. But its truthfulness is its greatness: it is at every moment alive with a visionary élan and the generous humanity of its directors, screenwriter and cast. Shot in black-and-white newsreel style and providing no reassuring narrative voice-over or fixed point-of-view, the re-release has been digitally restored using 35-millimeter prints.
The film is not for the weak of heart. We are given a front row seat to history as the nascent FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) organizes in response to both the executions of Algerian political prisoners and the French vigilantes’ mid-night demolition of an insurgent’s home in the heart of the Casbah. From there, the narrative rushes us through the side-streets, alleyways, and safe houses where we witness terrorist planning, assassinations, shoot-outs and bombings.
The key actors in the film are Saaid Yucef, who plays himself, a leader of an FLN terror cell, and Brahim Haggigag, a non-actor who plays the anti-hero Ali La Pointe as if he were Ali La Pointe, which he might as well be: the real-life Ali La Pointe, like Haggigag, was a thief, pimp and drug dealer who underwent a conversion to nationalism while in prison. La Pointe rose through the ranks to lead the FLN’s guerilla war against the civil authorities in Algiers. And as the film makes clear, violence effortlessly becomes the fabric of everyday life. French policeman are gunned down by children, pistols are plucked from the baskets of fruit vendors, and rifles are concealed underneath burqas; truckloads of sandbags are brought in by the police to cordon off neighborhoods, barbed wire checkpoints and hidden cameras are installed, innocent civilians are arrested while others are sprayed with machine gunfire from passing cars, and Algerian prisoners of war are tortured by French authorities in too many grotesque ways to name.
All the while director Pontecorvo’s painterly eye remains trained on his subject—the almost invisible process by which idealism takes root and transforms ordinary people who push themselves to the far limits of political determination, ruthless violence, and finally, the right side of history. But the consequences are shown to be equally atrocious on both sides. Pontecorvo’s fleet footed pacing, his uncanny camera angles and his unexpected, innovative close-ups, not to mention his passion for entirely re-creating the world of wartime Algiers, all come together to sum up entire lives within every montage. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack, a strange but perfectly appropriate combination of spaghetti Western-style flourishes, Bach-inspired fugues and the unrelenting wails of Algerian women, heightens the emotional urgency. And the film is nothing if not a series of dramatic turning points.
No sooner has the FLN begun to gain popular momentum then the French have called in the paratroopers, led by one Colonel Mathieu. Hardened in the battlefields of France, the Suez and Indochina, Mathieu marches triumphantly into sunny Algiers and quickly leads his forces as they take over the police work in the Casbah. Mathieu, as played by the tall, lanky, wide-eyed Frenchman Jean Martin (the only professional actor in the cast) is a virtuoso. Respectful of the FLN’s steeliness, Colonel Mathieu is wily and charming enough to keep the international press at bay while he breaks the FLN’s terror cells, one by one. In one bizarre yet ideologically explosive sequence, Colonel Mathieu co-hosts a press conference with a captured insurgent.
The film’s dismal dénouement is redeemed by an extended encore which depicts the popular resistance and mass protests of 1960. As the camera spans the rooftops and seascapes of Algiers at sunset, we are reminded that it is the actual citizenry of Algiers who created both their nation’s independence and Pontecorvo’s cinematic re-creation of it.
In a one of the bonus features, Ponetcorvo and his son revisit Algiers for Italian television 27 years after the filming of The Battle of Algiers. They arrive in the aftermath of The Gulf War, as the still very young Algerian nation is facing down a population explosion, civil unrest, suspended elections and the rise of popular support for and terrorism by the FIS (Islamic Front for Salvation). The level of distrust of Westerners which Pontecorvo encounters in ’92 is chilling, and he struggles without success to explain the causes of this Islamic zenophobia at large in neigborhoods once inhabited by the colonial French’s most rabid anti-Muslim racists.
Indeed none of Criterion’s other bonus material is ephemeral to the appreciating the film. "The Dictatorship of Truth" contains a documentary of interviews with Pontecorvo and his producers, narrated by the late literary critic and Palestinian activist Edward Said. Here Ponetcorvo’s life story is shown to be an epic in itself. A privileged tennis star in prewar Europe, he drifted into Marxist politics, took up arms against Mussolini and fell in love with the avant-garde cinema after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Open City and Paisan in Paris in the late 1940s. We learn how his success with The Battle of Algiers crippled him creatively. In subsequent decades, he made a living making TV commercials and practically vanished from the scene, partially because he was burned out by the grueling production of 1970’s Burn with Marlon Brando, and partially because he was silenced by the death in 1982 of his longtime collaborator Franco Solinas, with whom he’d written Algiers.
Also included are testimonials from prominent American directors, among them Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, and Julian Schnabel. While most of these interviews are gushy and repetitive, Steven Soderbergh’s keen observations of Pontecorvo’s techniques are invaluable. We also listen in on a roundtable discussion as the former American intelligence chiefs Richard Clarke and Michael A. Sheehan soberly explore the film’s relevance to the ongoing global "war" against Al Queda’s terror cells. Interviews with French and British historians, as well as with the unrepentant FLN bombers and their French torturers all bring home the awful waste and political stupidity of France’s 130-year occupation of Algeria.
Neither a quiet night’s rental nor a feel-good historical drama, The Battle of Algiers is a radical revolution in itself, that rare sort of dramatic art that teaches you how to see differently and to feel more sympathetically the life-lines written on the faces you might overlook on the streets and shops everyday. Not to mention what American viewers can learn, now, of what torture does to the tortured.